Two combines harvest wheat Aug. 5 near Pullman. Across eastern Washington, a drought the National Weather Service classified as “exceptional” has devastated what is normally the fourth largest wheat crop in the nation. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Two combines harvest wheat Aug. 5 near Pullman. Across eastern Washington, a drought the National Weather Service classified as “exceptional” has devastated what is normally the fourth largest wheat crop in the nation. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

2021 a record-breaking drought year in parts of Washington

Wheat, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes in the east side of the state have all suffered.

By Nicholas K. Geranios / Associated Press

SPOKANE — This has been a record-breaking year of drought in much of Eastern Washington, state officials say.

In April, a huge volume of snow in the Cascade Range measured in at 132 percent of normal statewide, raising hopes of an abundant water year, the state Department of Ecology said in a blog post last week. But now 16 Washington counties, including 13 in Eastern Washington, are drier than they’ve ever been since record-keeping began in 1895, the blog said.

According to the National Weather Service, from March to August the state saw just 6.90 inches of precipitation. Normal during that time is 13.03 inches.

To end the current drought in the lower Columbia River area, Ecology Drought Coordinator Jeff Marti said we’d need 11 inches of rain by next April. The odds of that kind of rebound are low.

“The question is, will we have a full recovery before next spring?” Marti said. “The odds for significant improvement of conditions are pretty good for Western Washington. But I’m less optimistic about the east side.

“Based on historic climatology, the odds for significantly ameliorating current conditions is about one in five across Eastern Washington. For a full recovery in Eastern Washington, the odds are about one in 20,” Marti said.

Counties recording the driest water year in their history between March and August this year include: Stevens, Ferry, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Lincoln, Adams, Whitman, Franklin, Walla Walla, Garfield, Asotin, Columbia and Kittitas in eastern Washington, plus Skagit, San Juan and Island in the western part of the state.

While a La Niña forecast increases the odds of a wetter winter, it doesn’t guarantee it, Marti said.

“And even a good La Niña could leave areas of lingering deficits, so people need to be vigilant,” he said. “Remember, last winter was a La Niña winter as well.”

Marti noted that on Aug. 26 the Nooksack River in Whatcom County experienced record low flows — in a basin where snowpack was 120 percent of normal.

“Back in April, looking at our awesome snowpack, I certainly wouldn’t have expected that this year the Nooksack would be establishing some record day-of-year lows” he said.

Nearly zero precipitation in spring, and a vicious heat wave hitting the state early in summer, led to rapid runoff from melting snow. Marti said. The watersheds with storage, particularly the Yakima River Basin and the Columbia mainstem, have largely been unscathed, he said.

But for areas that lack irrigation, it has been particularly difficult, the blog post said. Washington wheat, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes all suffered.

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